I am a hopeless Francophile. As such I have a simple, unreflecting love of:
1: Serge Gainsbourg
2: François Truffaut
5: Reeking cheese
6: Wine (esp red)
For me, nothing says France like a glass of Beaujolais (for preference, a Côte de Brouilly, as made around the patchwork protuberance of Mont Brouilly, pictured) and a bit of manure-scented cheese. Forget claret and Burgundy with their insane price tags and tiresome self-importance; give me Beaujolais, Bojo, Bojangles, and the fruitiness, floweriness and minerality of the gamay grape from which it’s made (or rather, from which 98% of Beaujolais is made; 2% of Beaujolais wine is white, which is made from chardonnay).
What makes bojo bojo?
Gamay is one of the defining things about Beaujolais wine, but there are a couple of others: first, the soil, which is basically granite or limestone and which gives decent Beaujolais a distinct mineral feel; second, the winemaking method, which is almost always carbonic maceration.
‘Carbonic maceration’ means the grapes are fermented whole (rather than their juice being extracted before fermentation happens, which is the usual method) under a layer of carbon dioxide gas. This carbon dioxide ‘seal’ inside the fermentation vat starves the grape cells of oxygen, so they switch from aerobic to anaerobic respiration. The result is wines that are light and fruity without much tannin. That’s not to say all bojo is light and fruity – some are rich with oak and concentrated fruit – but this is the typical style.
AOC Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages
When it comes to buying Beaujolais, you should be aware of the different names, or appellations, they’re sold under. On the labels you’re either going to see ‘AOC Beaujolais’, ‘Beaujolais Villages’ or one of the 10 Beaujolais ‘cru’. AOC Beaujolais is a big production region producing the cheapest and most basic bojos: light, refreshing, uncomplicated; ‘fun’ is the way a lot of wine people would describe it. Fine then: it’s fun. ‘Beaujolais Villages’ is a large but still carefully defined production area whose wines are generally more interesting than AOC Beaujolais, but which aren’t too fussy when it comes to winemaking regulation. So, for example, the grapes can be sourced from different vineyards and vinified in one big batch – meaning there’s generally not much of a ‘terroir‘ aspect to these wines.
The 10 crus
The crus are a different story, and one where Beaujolais starts to turn on the style. These wines may cost a bit more, but they will generally be worth paying for. The variety afforded by these 10 very small areas, all using the same grape, is a thing to marvel at. From the south heading north, the 10 Beaujolais crus run one after the other in an almost unbroken chain: Brouilly is followed by Côte de Brouilly, then there’s Régnié, Morgon, and Chiroubles, after which come Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Juliénas and finally Saint-Amour. Saint-Amour marks the northern boundary of the Beaujolais region; then it’s on to the Mâconnais.
It’s said that there’s no hierarchy of Beaujolais crus, but there is one really. If you had a bottle of each of the crus lined up in front of you, it would be best to start by tasting the Chiroubles, Fleurie and Saint-Amour (those usually described as ‘light’ and ‘fruity’), then move on to the more full-bodied – Régnié, Juliénas, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly – before finally taking on the Chénas, Morgon and the Moulin-à-Vent. The last three are where Beaujolais becomes very classy indeed, with the sort of structure that makes them capable of ageing for years. They are a match for many Burgundy pinots and a source of almost boundless pleasure if you’re into your gamay.
Why the bad rep?
“Beaujolais? Bananas! Bubblegum! Horrible bilge!” This is the response you might get from some people if you ask them what they think about bojo. You should disregard such outbursts as the mouthfarts of morons. Bojo’s less-than-glittering reputation is down to two things:
1: the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon, which led many people to believe that all Beaujolais was kids’ stuff: light, bland, bubblegummy;
2: Beaujolais’ proximity to Burgundy, and the rather big shadow cast by its main grape, pinot noir (it’s telling that in wine circles, certain of the fuller-bodied Beaujolais crus are said to have ‘pinoted’ when they reach a certain level of complexity). Pinot is awkward to grow; gamay comparatively easy and high-yielding. So gamay lacks that recherché quality. Who cares, I say…
In a world full of wine wankery…
In a world full of wine wankery, there’s something levelling and democratic about Beaujolais. There’s nothing ‘precious’ about it. It doesn’t profess to be the nectar of the Gods or try to awe you with its mystique (though it is capable of provoking something like awe). It’s more universal in its appeal than that. It’s good, plentiful, relatively inexpensive wine with a lovely quaffable combination of fruit, acidity, floral aromas and a touch of tannin grip. To a Francophile like me, it’s at the very heart of that nebulous thing called ‘Frenchness – the ur-French wine on the ur-French kitchen table next to the ur-French bread board – which is why, along with Serge, François, the shrugging and the reeking cheese, Bojo will always give me my mojo.
Photo by Franck Lechenet ©